< The Chopping Bloc


Friday, June 24, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. You listen to public radio, so you probably know that public broadcasting's federal funding came under the axe, again. Half of the 200 million dollar proposed cut was restored by a House amendment on Thursday, but the exercise itself was instructive. The cut was put forth partly as an austerity measure, and partly, some say, as a response to perceived bias. It seems some legislators wanted to clip the wings, not of Big Bird, but Bill Moyers and salt the ground he walked upon.

BILL MOYERS: The flag belongs to the country - not to the government.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Moyers read from one of his PBS commentaries in a recent speech.

BILL MOYERS: And it reminds me that it's not un-American to think that war, except in self defense, is a failure of moral imagination, political nerve and diplomacy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The issue of bias was raised explicitly by Ken Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through which federal money flows to the public broadcasting system. He hired a conservative ideologue, Fred Mann, to monitor bias in Moyers' PBS show, and this week the CPB board announced its new president will be former State Department official and Republican National Committee co-chair Patricia Harrison, who North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan described as a partisan political figure entirely wrong for the job. After all, the CPB board is supposed to act as a political heat shield for public broadcasting, but since it's appointed by the president, that's hard to do. So every year, public broadcasters trudge up Capitol Hill to justify their subsidy, and every ten years or so, like right now, a critical pass of peeved lawmakers scare the bejesus out of them. And lately it's not just lawmakers. [RADIO CLIP PLAYS]

BRIAN LEHRER: Michael in Manhattan, you're on WNYC.

MICHAEL: Hi, Brian.

BRIAN LEHRER: How you doing?

MICHAEL: My thought is, I think all federal funding should be removed from public broadcasting. I love this station and others I listen to. I would pay more not to have the federal government in any way, subtly or otherwise, influencing the content of the radio.

LARRY GROSSMAN: Well, that's an understandable sentiment, but a wrong one.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Larry Grossman was the president of PBS from 1976 to 1984.

LARRY GROSSMAN: Because to be independent of government funding means that it would have to depend on corporate funding all the more for the programming. The advantage that public broadcasting has is that the public supports it, corporations support it, foundations support it, local governments support it, and federal governments support it, so nobody has total control.

JEROLD STARR: I would certainly disagree with Larry--

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jerold Starr is the executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting.

JEROLD STARR: What you've got, basically, is a system whereby those sources of money, corporate underwriting, conservative politicians, affluent, and I stress affluent, subscribers are the ones who control the purse strings and, as such, they are the ones who call the tune, and this has been demonstrated time and again in, in depth studies of public broadcasting.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Starr has a solution: A new funding structure, specifically a public trust, like those supporting the U.S. Olympic Committee or Little League Baseball. The government would have a role, but not one that would require those trudges up Capitol Hill. Starr believes the public might actually be willing to embrace taxes on digital set-top boxes that some day every viewer will need, and if not the public, how about a little tax on commercial broadcasters, who Starr says have had a free ride for a very long time.

JEROLD STARR: We've done national polling on the subject. We had 79 percent support for commercial broadcasters paying 5 percent of their profits into a fund to support public broadcasting. That's more than we would need.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, in that case, it would be the people versus the lobbying power of big media, a titanic battle that would probably be too close to call. And there's still another possible source of funding. The government is in the process of moving American television from the current analog system to a digital one. When that transition occurs, it plans to auction off those analog frequencies and reap a multi-billion dollar windfall. PBS President Pat Mitchell wants the federal subsidy to continue, but she'd also like a piece of that auction pie.

PAT MITCHELL: We have a bill on Capitol Hill right now which is asking that when this analog spectrum is auctioned off, that some of the proceeds from this spectrum be put into a trust fund that would start to create a more sustainable fund for stations, producers and PBS.

STEVE BEHRENS: It makes a good deal of sense on paper, but everybody would like to get their hands on those billions from the sale.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Behrens is the editor of the public broadcasting newspaper Current.

STEVE BEHRENS: The government's been counting on it to balance the budget.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when does that happen, that sale?

STEVE BEHRENS: No one knows. It could be in the next few years, but given the difficulty of moving people, grandma, for instance, off of her old Admiral, it could take quite a while.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, Jack Schafer, who writes the Press Box column for Slate, has a novel approach. Public TV and radio stations currently occupy some prime real estate on the broadcast spectrum. For public radio, most of those stations are on frequencies reserved for non-commercial use. Shafer says the government should free those stations to use those frequencies as they wish, without restrictions, and just walk away. He says in some markets public radio has more than it needs. Why not sell a station or two for the greater good of public radio?

JACK SHAFER: Like in, in my market here in Washington, D.C., I, I have three different stations that I can listen to Morning Edition on. Three overlapping FM stations. What sort of sense does that make?

STEVE BEHRENS: None of them would volunteer to put their head on the chopping block.


STEVE BEHRENS: Every one of them believes they have a reason to exist, and as much of a reason as the next guy, so why should it be them that would be sacrificed?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Shafer says that with a little creativity, public radio could share.

JACK SHAFER: You know that the big fat chunks of spectrum that they own can be subdivided; that you can compress and digitally encode radio programs on those frequencies. You can probably increase the number of stations that you could run on any one of these, and why not rent or sell half of it?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But right now, hardly anyone has or even sells digital radios that could pick those signals up. As for public television, Shafer notes that those stations are in line for a new, big chunk of digital frequency, part of which they could lease or sell.

JACK SHAFER: If I had a multi-billion dollar set of assets, and I came to you and said, "Brooke, can you give me a buck and a half for a cup of coffee?" You'd say, "Screw you, Jack. Why don't you convert some of those resources into an endowment for your daily cup of coffee and not come and ask me." And if I came back to you and I said, "You know, Brooke, society is so improved if I have a cup of coffee every day. Surely you should want to subsidize my cup of coffee." Once again, you'd say, "Jack, you're sitting on billions of dollars worth of assets."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shafer is a libertarian, so he doesn't cotton to the idea that public broadcasting needs public money to do public service. But that's a minority view, to be sure. PBS President Pat Mitchell.

PAT MITCHELL: Yet again this year, in a Roper poll, Americans said they ranked their taxpayer dollar investment, and it is only about one dollar per taxpayer, they rank that second in terms of value, return on that investment, second only to military defense.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That point is not lost on Capitol Hill. Legislators in the Nixon era, in the Reagan era, the Gingrich era, and now in the Bush era, have each taken a whack at public broadcasting only to find themselves pinned and gasping under the lethal talons of Big Bird. In fact, creating some sort of public broadcasting endowment is starting to look pretty good, even to conservative Republican Congressmen like Cliff Stearns of Florida.

CLIFF STEARNS: I think conservatives are saying that there is a possibility that we could work out a lump sum settlement, I don't know how much it would be, maybe it would be a small amount, maybe be a little amount, but…

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's a big choice - a small amount or a little amount. [LAUGHS]

CLIFF STEARNS: Well, I think that's what would be argued, but again, I think we have to consider that every year that there's going to be some reduction in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting just cause we're trying to balance the budget.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, would you support the idea of a lump sum payment to get CPB and your constituents off your back?

CLIFF STEARNS: Well, I would support looking at some kind of lump sum if in the end we could agree that this is a one-time, never-again, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting is on its own.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some day, maybe. Most public broadcasters are conservative when it comes to money. Changing the system, not to mention arguing about the size of that possible one-time endowment, is likely to cause cold sweats, but former PBS President Larry Grossman says there's a positive side to these periodic arguments in Washington.

LARRY GROSSMAN: Thomas Jefferson used to say that a little revolution every once in a while is good for democracy. The threat of political interference tends to bring out the best in the leadership of public broadcasting and certainly among its supporters.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When President Lyndon Johnson created the CPB in 1967, he was fully aware of that threat.

LYNDON JOHNSON: If public television is to fulfill our hopes, then the Corporation must be representative. It must be responsible, and it must be long on enlightened leadership.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Every so often, the Washington establishment appears to be somewhat less than representative on the issue of public broadcasting. So the time may come when Congress will decide to hand over a lump sum, hopefully big enough to ensure the health of the system and cut it loose. There will still be arguments, loud and rancorous ones, between public broadcasting and its patrons, its viewers, its communities, but then if the system falters, it will have no one but itself to blame. [MUSIC] By the way, when President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act on November 7, 1967, he was thinking far beyond the potential of public broadcasting.

LYNDON JOHNSON: I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge - not just a broadcast system - but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can use.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Here's the part, the part where Lyndon Baines Johnson, in his perfervid imagination, invents the internet.

LYNDON JOHNSON: The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital; a scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York; a famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspiration into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected. Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank, and such a system could involve other nations. It could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind. A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday's strangest dreams are today's headlines, and change is getting swifter every moment.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, Hillary and Rupert, sitting in a tree of political expedience. This is On the Media from NPR.